The Case Against Fairness: Why Favoritism, Not Fairness, Should be The Ethical Standard for The 21st Century


Imagine that a father said to you, “I would strangle everyone in this room if it somehow prolonged my son’s life.” You might be immediately repulsed and understandably doubt his capacity as a father. But bear with me. After a minute of reflection, you might think, “well, perhaps he’s just ignorant. Or perhaps very selfish. Maybe I could understand where he’s coming from, even if I think he’s wrong.” After some time to reconsider, the father only intensifies his earlier claim: “I realized that I meant it—I would choke them all.” Now imagine that that father is a philosopher who justifies that action using ideas from some of the greatest minds in the Western canon and got his argument published in a prestigious peer-reviewed university press.

In his recent book Against Fairness, Columbia College Chicago professor of philosophy Stephen T. Asma is just that philosopher-father and makes just this case for favoritism [1]. He contends that all of the wishy-washy, kumbaya lessons we learned in kindergarten about the Golden Rule and only bringing treats if there’s enough for everyone are antithetical to the way human life was meant to be lived. According to Asma, we as a species have been making a category error for most of our existence by looking for the answers of how to live in abstract principles from ethical philosophy and religion when we should have been listening to our instincts for favoritism.

Asma returns frequently to the softer writings of Charles Darwin to show that, whether we believe in group or kin selection theories of evolution, favoritism is natural and we should listen to modern neuroscience when it tells us that love and empathy are nothing more than neurochemical impulses. Fairness, as it were, is a misinterpretation of what human nature ought to be, based on an unfounded social stigma against what it is. As Martin Cohen scathingly characterizes Asma’s view in the Times Higher Education, “Out with all those airy theories about virtue and categorical imperatives, down with the grand edifice of utilitarianism! All that matters are the random promptings of evolutionary biochemistry” [2]. With this book, Asma has opened an enormous can of worms.

Ethical Imperatives and Human Nature

Fairness is so fundamental to Western values that Asma’s task of uprooting it would seem impossible. Representing the traditional Western view of justice, Asma quotes philosopher Martha Nussbaum, a scholar of classical liberalism: “[America] is built on the idea that all citizens are of equal worth and dignity.” In Asma’s own words, “Americans are taught, from an early age, that no one is intrinsically ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ than anyone else, that everyone is equally valuable.” As Americans, we accept these views almost without question. Many hold them as mere ideals, while others would actually claim to practice them in their everyday lives. It is this system of Western fairness that Asma’s book seeks to destabilize by pointing out its sheer impossibility and inconsistency with human nature.

It is no accident that Asma begins his book with the his claim that he would kill countless others to protect his own son. Though the example is perhaps in bad taste, it effectively grounds Asma’s argument in what he considers the foundation of human morality: biological instincts for favoritism (otherwise known as love). He writes:

Charles Darwin argued that the moral life itself is actually built upon the tribal devotions of our ancestors. The foundation of morality lies in the social instincts, including under this term family ties… these instincts do not extend to all the individuals of the species, but only those of the same community.

We all practice love, and therefore favoritism. Whether that love extends to a sexual partner, to children, to an extended family, or one’s entire community, it is clear that it does not and cannot apply to an entire species. Asma draws upon work in neuroscience showing that our brains actually respond differently to close relatives than others. For example, mother-child relationships are physically established by oxytocin imprinting in the critical period of the first few months of life. Like it or not, it is only a handful of neurochemicals like oxytocin that reward and thus in part determine our moral actions, even into adulthood. These primary relationships come first in our social development and we have long known that individuals who lack them have an increased chance of asocial behavioral disorders. This suggests that this early favoritism is actually the building block of all subsequent hopes for sociality, altruism, and, yes, fairness. Asma writes, “Attachments must be uniquely intense—etched in the mammal family experience—if they are to compete with an animal’s egocentric tendencies.” Evolutionary biology today suggests (via the prevailing theory of kin selection) that “blood nepotism evolved first, and this chemically based behavior developed into wider (non-blood) networks of social cohesion.”

But why must we favor those close to us? Why can’t we treat everyone equally? To speak of loving all 7 billion human beings equally, as economist Jeremy Rifkin does in his book The Empathetic Civilization, is both impossible due to limits of time and place and inconsistent with the way we as a species invest our social energies: in families, small groups of friends, and individual relationships. Asma writes, “I submit that care or empathy is a limited resource… Empathy is not a concept but a biological reality.”

In the example of strangling others to save his own son, Asma unearths a logical inconsistency in the fact that we call it praiseworthy for a father to love his own child more than all other children, but that him acting preferentially on that love in extreme cases is immoral. Our society’s simultaneous values of loving those close to oneself and caring equally for the good of all often seem compatible but come into serious conflict when we are forced to choose between the two.

If you’re doubting this case, Asma writes that it took a great shift in his own life for his beliefs to change. He writes:

The utilitarian demand—that I should always maximize the greatest good for the greatest number—seemed reasonable to me in my twenties but made me laugh after my son was born… So, as I learned, becoming a parent brings some new emotional “organs” with it, some organs I never would have thought possible to grow in me just five years earlier. These “organs” process the intense protective biases—the “chemicals”—of family solidarity.

Asma is well aware of the stigma that the Darwinian language of self-interest carries and frequently refers to it as “draconian,” “primitive,” and “provincial.” However, he is unwilling to buy into the cultural belief that it is somehow a priori a worse or “lower” system of ethics simply because it is natural. For Asma, a major error of Western philosophy has been underestimating the value of instinctual beliefs like love for one’s son and favoring abstract notions of rational systems like the impartial justice we value today. He writes, “The tension between preference and fairness is not just between the individual heart and the collective head. Rather, it is a tension between two competing notions of the good.” Western thought unknowingly tries to balance both views, but fails. For Asma, progress starts with honesty in admitting that this is the case and asking ourselves the difficult questions, “So how do we reconcile our favoritism with our conflicting sense of equality for all?… How do we square these preferential emotions with our larger social ethics?”

Religious Fairness, East and West

A major portion of Asma’s book, like Western ethics itself, discusses religion as the primary source of socially constructed ethics. Everyone loves the story of Jesus Christ and almost everyone, regardless of faith, would consider him a moral paragon. Jesus spent time with the sick, prostitutes, and other social pariahs and perfectly embodies the idea of indiscriminate love that heavily influenced Western notions of equality, justice, and fairness. Yet, as the title of Asma’s first chapter suggests, “even Jesus had a favorite”—namely his discipline John, who was really a favorite of favorites. Similarly, Siddhatta Gotama, the Buddha—who famously celebrated the equality of not only all human beings but even all living creatures—had a best friend, Ananda.

Yet, many passages in the New Testament go so far as to suggest that familial love and Christ love are mutually exclusive. Christ says in the Gospel of Matthew:

For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10:35-37)

Just in the way the Western tradition of classical liberalism sets familial love opposed to universal love, Christianity frames familial love as mutually exclusive from Christ love. Asma quotes Bertrand Russel lamenting this constructed opposition: “All this means the breakup of the biological family tie for the sake of creed—an attitude which has a great deal to do with the intolerance that came into the world with the spread of Christianity.”

In the Eastern tradition, Gandhi seems especially aware of the conflict between spiritualism and traditional bonds of family and friendship. As Asma paraphrases Gandhi, “The seeker of goodness… must have no close friendships or exclusive loves because these will introduce loyalty, partiality, bias, and favoritism. In order to love everyone, we must not preferentially love any individual group.” While Gandhi is often praised for holding to these “humanist” principles, George Orwell was deeply troubled by them and labeled them “anti-humanist” and even “anti-human” insofar as his work was an “attempt to subjugate human values to the demands of some transcendent, ideological value system.” Asma quotes Orwell in this self-produced animation describing the role of fairness in Eastern versus Western culture:

To an ordinary human being, love means nothing if it does not mean loving some people more than others… The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty and favoritism. As authentic human beings, we must be prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.

For Asma, as admirable as Gandhi’s ideal of non-attachment is, it is antithetical to “the humanistic ideal, which maintains that this flawed world (with all its liabilities of attachment) is the only one we have.” However, though it is rooted in a different faith tradition, this Eastern philosophy is not at all isolated. Something very similar to it has crept into our “dogmatic liberal traditions of universal equality for all.” Like the example of having to strangle others for the protection of his own child, the case of Gandhi is indeed extreme, but it helps shed light on the philosophical tension between favoritism and fairness. Somewhere on the ground between these two extremes, both of which now seem untenable, lies the ethical path we are looking for.

Rational Favoritism

The case for favoritism is obviously nothing new. By common understanding today, favoritism was the dominant ethic in human life up until very recent times. So how, then, is Asma’s case original? In my view, it is unique insofar as it tries to collapse the false binary distinction between selfish, animalistic human behavior and philosophical and religious ideals of fairness, all by defending favoritism from within the Western philosophical tradition.

Asma’s book is a plea for ethical philosophy to recognize fundamental tensions it has long ignored and in so doing give up its unattainable ideal of fairness as total human selflessness. Asma writes:

While everyone has a general sense that favoritism feels natural and that fairness vies against it, philosophers and leaders have almost always sided with fairness and against favoritism. Religious leaders have agreed that we tend toward preference and bias, but we should generally resist this pull and fight our own inner discriminatory tendencies. Biologists and social theorists, since Darwin, have joined the ranks of anti-bias, by arguing that our animal nature might be selfish, but our uniquely human capacities allow us to fight against our animal natures. Implicit in this idea, that our better angels can subdue our baser instincts, is the assumption that these instincts are selfish—are focused on self-preservation. But this assumption has skewed the conversation into a false dichotomy: either you’re for yourself, or you’re for fairness.

This very dichotomy was perhaps the most emphasized distinction between Democrats and Republicans in the just-passed 2012 election season. Left-wing media was obsessed with connecting vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan to his idiotic ideological parent, Ayn Rand, a radical defender of capitalist self-interest and “ethical egoism.” Meanwhile, those on the Right bashed the “takers” that constitute 47% of our country for feeling unreasonably entitled to economic fairness—Socialism! Nay, Communism!—by way of increased government resource allocation. These two extreme political views function as outrageous caricatures of the two camps—fairness and selfishness—that for Asma are both undesirable.

While most cases against fairness from social Darwinists to Ayn Rand are famously pseudo-scientific and irrational, Asma’s task is to tread ground more carefully and steer clear of dogma and ideology. For Asma, people like Rand have deceived us into thinking that the opposite of fairness is selfishness, which, despite Rand’s thousands of pages of urging to the contrary, is not an ethical value. However, selfishness is not the opposite of fairness—favoritism is, and favoritism takes on a particular sphere of attachment outside oneself.

Asma’s unit of analysis is the tribe, which he defines loosely as “an us in a milieu of thems.” From families to religious cults to fans of certain sports teams, tribes in all their variety are an integral part of human society. The negative connotation of “the tribe” as uncultured, irrational, and inevitably replaced by civilization is largely a product of Western bias. Asma writes that there is “little evidence that tribes are always supplanted or replaced by later kinds of political organization” and furthermore, “the fact that there have been some very nasty and hostile tribes throughout history does not nullify the tribe as a valid form of social organization.”

What makes Asma’s “tribe” theory work is that it is not contrived like most other moral theories. Rather, it is rooted in the reality of mammalian biology, which depends upon close relationships. Western philosophy is full of countless theories of man being naturally evil before he is civilized—from Freud’s “Homo homini lupus (man is a wolf to other men)” to Hobbes’s state of nature as “a war of all against all”—but they are all mere constructions. Asma makes use of scientific findings to show that the opposite of fairness is not Hobbesian egomania—a fantasy of classical liberalism—but rather one of tribalism and healthy nepotism. Asma actually suggests that we’re not far from Freud’s wolves—the classic in-group/out-group animals—in that “most animals are only ‘fair’ inside their social groups, not outside them”—and that includes us.

Nepotism is vestige of tribal society in modern life, and we Westerners consider it a dirty word akin to “corruption.” However, Asma shares from several years spent living in China that nepotism and using “connections” to get your way have no negative connotation in many Eastern cultures. When someone in the East comes upon wealth or good fortune, the expectation is that they share it first with family and friends. In this tradition, to keep wealth only to oneself or to pass over one’s family and share with strangers are both considered corruption, in contrast to healthy nepotism. Asma shares a Chinese anecdote that when a politician once bragged to Confucius that his people were so morally upright that if a father stole a sheep, the son would give evidence against him, Confucius replied, “Our people’s uprightness is not like that. The father shields his son, the son shields his father. There is uprightness in this.”

In sharp contrast to this Eastern nepotism, we in the West “are encouraged to eliminate our personal connections from considerations of justice.” Our hero of equality, Lady Justice, wears a blindfold to symbolize the irrelevance of social status, race, and gender in law. Central to the Enlightenment project of democracy is egalitarianism, the tenet that began in classical liberalism asserting that all men are “created equal under God,” and thus to be treated equally, at least by government. It is in the wake of this tradition that philosopher John Rawls posited what is perhaps the most philosophically rigorous definition of justice in history: “justice as fairness.”

However, British philosopher Bertrand Russell saw the Western ideal of equality, along with the Christian ideal of loving one’s enemies, as deeply unrealistic. Russell instead preferred the Chinese system for its honesty and attainability. For Russell, the good Chinese person is expected “to be respectful to his parents, kind to his children, generous to his poor relations, and courteous to all.” He comments, “These are not very difficult duties, but most men actually fulfill them, and the result is perhaps better than that of our higher standard, from which most people fall short.”

Even Aristotle, the poster-child of Western philosophy, upheld this hierarchy of asymmetrical justice with kin and kith on top. Strongly counter to later Enlightenment thinkers like Immanuel Kant, who held that ethical decisions should be made based on universal maxims, and the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham, whose moral judgements were more like mathematical calculations, Aristotle’s moral philosophy allowed for nepotism. He wrote, “It is a more terrible thing to defraud a friend than a fellow citizen, more terrible not to help a brother than a stranger, and more terrible to wound a father than anyone else.” Unless one wants to argue against these close relationships in the first place, it seems that we should admit to practicing this moral preference.

The Western corollary of Confucius’s case of the son incriminating his father is the Platonic dialogue Euthyphro, in which Socrates interrupts a brash young man named Euthyphro on his way to court to charge his father with murder. The dialogue goes on to discuss the question, “what is piety to one’s father?” in which Socrates proffers more difficult questions than answers. While Socrates doesn’t offer us an ethical solution to this case, he scoffs at Euthyphro’s confidence in egalitarian justice regardless of kin relation and suggests that justice is not as simple as fairness.

While all this talk of murderous fathers seems far from everyday favoritism, it reveals what philosopher Robert Nozick called “ethical pull”—the increased moral gravity loved ones take on in our moral choices. Though it is aware of this reality, Asma writes that “modern ethical theory doesn’t know what to do with varied degrees of ethical pull. Unequal variables don’t fit well in the calculus of rights and duties.” Utilitarians like Peter Singer have tried to boil such biases down to objective preferences, but Asma stretches this mode of thinking to its limit. He writes:

The hard-core version [of utilitarianism] asserts that it is more ethical to deny your elderly father expensive health care if the same money could save ten starting African strangers. From some utterly impartial, detached perspective (some fictional God’s-eye perspective), I suppose this position is “rational.” But most of us, saints notwithstanding, are wonderfully partial and irrevocably attached.

In this case, the utilitarian explanation for spending the money on one’s own father and not the starving Africans is that the sheer “proximity” of one’s father makes helping him easier and more morally obvious. However, returning to the Confucian notion that morality actually begins with kin connections, Asma doesn’t buy the utilitarians’ stripping of familial privilege. He maintains, “we really owe more to our favorites, and not just because of their convenient locations.” In defending the Confucian notion of family loyalty as the foundation for all ethics, Asma resorts to an emotionally based rather than rationally based system of ethics, and for good reasons.

Peter Singer raises a strong objection to Asma’s argument from his field of utilitarianism, or rational ethics. In his classic 1981 book The Expanding Circle, Singer was among the first contemporary philosophers to suggest that the morality, altruism, and empathy one shares with his or her tribe could be expanded to encompass the entire human species. Singer writes:

If I have seen that from an ethical point of view I am just one person among the many in my society, and my interests are no more important, from the point of view of the whole, than the similar interests of others within my society, I am ready to see that, from a still larger point of view, my society is just one among other societies, and the interests of members of my society are no more important, from the larger perspective, than the similar interests of members of other societies… Taking the impartial element in ethical reasoning to its logical conclusion means, first, accepting that we ought to have equal concern for all human beings.

This view, better known as cosmopolitanism, suggests that as our social circles expand to include more people different from ourselves, the favoritism we once placed on only our own tribe will be expanded to all human beings, even those we have not met. The trouble with this argument is that its originality lies in defending that we ought to have “equal concern for all human beings.” The fact is that we never will have equal concern for all human beings, because we inevitably have special relationships with our own tribes. So Singer’s vision of “one world” (the title of a later book of his) remains just that: a vision, and a hollow one at that. Saying that we logically “ought” to have the same concern for all human beings, insofar as it is an unattainable ethical standard, is not a useful or even comprehensible one. As Asma concludes, “Singer’s abstract ‘ethical point of view’ is not wrong so much as it is irrelevant.”

While utilitarians like Singer want ethics to be “allocentric”—centered on others—instead of egocentric, Asma accuses such rational, utilitarian systems of actually being “nemocentric”—centered on nobody—in the degree to which they devalue important relationships. Asma writes, “An ideal centerless view of the good may be just the thing for certain legal policy considerations, but not in our daily lives.” In abstract discussions of public policy and law (cue Martha Nussbaum), fairness may be the best policy, but we commit a category error in trying to carry over those principles into personal decision making.

Pedagogical Reflections

Having presented his case for rational favoritism, Asma’s greatest concern stems again from his own position as a father. One day his son came home from school with a fancy ribbon he won in a footrace. As he began to praise his son, he was interrupted. “No, it wasn’t just me,” his son explained. “We all won the race!” Education today, particularly at the primary level, places a huge emphasis on not only fairness, that is, equal opportunity, but even equal outcomes that undermine merit and achievement. Asma worries that “such protective ‘lessons’ ill-equip kids for the realities of later life. As our children grow up, they will have to negotiate a world of partiality” and furthermore that “focus on equality of outcome may produce a generation that is burdened with an indignant sense of entitlement.”

Is there really a harm in teaching fairness? Asma’s best argument against pushing fairness is that it comes at an opportunity cost to teaching other values that we know are more central to human life. The relatively young field of positive psychology has taught us that without a doubt the most important component in human happiness and meaning are quality long-term relationships. In fact, the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which tracked over 268 male Harvard graduates over their entire lives, found that the quality of one’s personal relationships by late-middle age is the single greatest determinant of lifelong happiness and personal satisfaction [3]. Though this might seem intuitive, it took an enormous study to cut through our culture’s materialistic promises that happiness follows primarily from wealth and status.

Treating everyone with respect is important at a young age, and there are good reasons for the “Golden Rule” approach that education has taken. However, Asma believes that we would actually get a more socially invested population by emphasizing the importance of three values that our obsession with fairness leaves out: loyalty, generosity, and gratitude. Virtues fundamental to our society such as loyalty depend on deeply rooted connections and even biases, not fairness. Similarly, fairness cheapens generosity and gratitude, which are valued only because they enrich our social bonds—themselves a web of biases.

The pursuit of “meaning” in life is itself founded on bias. In order to be passionate about something, one has to prefer it above others, and in order to pursue most goals in our social world, one has to pursue it with select others. These pursuits require loyalty to others, generosity within affectionate relationships, and gratitude, which Asma says bears “a sense of existential worth” for its beholder as a kind of charity toward oneself in knowing that one will often never be able to repay debts to others. By contrast, “The idealized grid of fairness cannot limn the contours of these deep existential debts,” largely because it reduces the space of ethics to paper and principles while we experience it only among others. Instead of preparing young people to weigh all the life options and people they come across equally, we should prepare them to get a head start on their own project of meaning and meaningful relationships by, at the very least, not condemning favoritism, and perhaps even encouraging it.

We Could Use a Little Tribalism

Asma confronts a major counter-argument you’ve probably been thinking of all along, here voiced by psychologist Barry Schwartz. Schwartz proposes “the possibility that the only thing that keeps favoritism within reasonable bounds is precisely our commitment to fairness… Were people to subscribe to [Asma’s] view, perhaps… we would slowly give in to the worst of our ‘us vs. them’ tendencies.” Put differently, without the reigns of reason and ethical mores to keep favoritism in check, human society would devolve into extreme, isolated tribalism.

Asma takes this objection seriously and grants that the idea of fairness itself probably does act as a reminder for ethical action. Asma’s response is essentially that in our hyper-individualistic era of detachment from others, we could actually use a little tribalism. Still, our society views tribalism in an extremely negative light. A graphic Asma published with a preview of his book in The Chronicle Review shows how people etymologically associate favoritism, or “pre-ference,” with “pre-judice” [4]. However, this is an unfair characterization. The existence of preference or favoritism for some does not logically lead to prejudice or hate toward others—the logical leap critics like Schwartz make. You might accuse Asma of having a rosy view of human nature, but he doesn’t think tribalism necessarily devolves into prejudice. (After all, does love?)

Yet, there are plenty of staunch defenders of fairness left to account for besides Schwartz. As a philosopher, Martha Nussbaum is confident that she is doing a great public service by urging people to apply rational fairness to their lives and overcome prejudices and biases on the grounds of race, religion, sexual orientation, and the like. As a legal scholar, she stresses the necessity of the Equal Protection (i.e. fairness) Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment for an effective democratic society. Fairness seems to have had a part in overcoming major injustices in history from slavery to women’s rights. It seems that we should value it, right?

Here it is crucial to note that Asma is not a political scientist, but a moral philosopher. This book is not a work of political philosophy, but rather a work of ethics, that is, how to live a good human life. Asma would surely grant that fairness is important in government, but that is because fairness and impartiality is comprehensible at the level of government, which is itself an abstraction like fairness. Individuals do not work that way. We are literally born from others, and it is both inevitable and good for us to have preferences for at least those people. While fairness is necessary from the point of view of government, it is a relatively weak standard for our personal sense of ethics.

Here, fairness advocates like Nussbaum are actually in agreement with Asma. In her book From Disgust to Humanity, Nussbaum argues that in addition to “respect” in the fight for marriage equality for same-sex couples: “Something else, something closer to love, must also be involved… [W]e are unlikely to achieve full respect for one another unless we can do something else first—see the other as a center of perception, emotion, and reason, rather than an inert object” [5]. Empty ideals like respect and fairness don’t lead to ethical action. Nussbaum’s call for love in politics acknowledges that individuals need to have an emotional stake in a matter in order to act ethically upon it—they need to have love, and if that love is to be meaningful, they need to have favoritism.

Asma ultimately responds to Schwartz that in classic moral cases like helping strangers, “favor” and compassion (here, toward strangers) are more at work than “fairness,” which is simply a poor attribution for what inspired that moral action. Likewise, Nussbaum concedes that merely conceiving of the abstract fairness of a law is not enough for one to be prompted to speak out for it and defend it. Citizens of the kind of society we want to live in need to go beyond abstract fairness and enter into compassion grounded in relationships. Asma writes, “Sadly, there is not enough of this compassion in our contemporary culture, but it doesn’t improve matters to incorrectly call it fairness and expect egalitarian rules or calculations to fix it.” Even older and more fundamental to human experience than fairness are love and favoritism. Instead of pursuing abstract ideals, we should feel confident pursuing compassionate personal relationships without regard for fairness. Asma concludes, “Love, not fairness, is the engine of philanthropy.”


In many respects, I applaud Asma’s project. He points out that we are wrong to follow the fairness of the democratic herd despite obvious instinctual, emotional, and indeed rational arguments that both individuals and society might be better off if they occasionally broke from the dogma of fairness. Any good philosopher has an eye and hatred for dogma, even liberal-democratic dogma. Additionally, Asma is not nearly as socially or politically conservative as the title of his book might suggest. He defends his argument, “my favoritism position should not be taken as an endorsement of laissez-faire doctrine.” His project is much more humble: “It was not my goal to denounce all forms of egalitarian fairness, but to dethrone it as the standard of Western ethical life.”

Asma’s project is ultimately a humanist one, reconciling widely accepted, overly demanding philosophical ideals with everyday human experience. As it turns out, even Gandhi, the self-proclaimed idol of universal love and fairness, had a best friend in Jewish architect Hermann Kallenbach, whom he met while working as a human rights lawyer in South Africa. Asma stretches both religious and philosophical notions of fairness to their limits, and in these extreme cases their tether to earthly life breaks. On the religious figures he discusses throughout his book, Asma asks, “Why do they discriminate at all, if everybody is equally valuable?” The answer is obvious: “they can’t do otherwise. It is human to prefer. Love is discriminatory.”

Asma critiques much of the philosophical tradition for succumbing to Eurocentric beliefs that “it is our notion of equality that makes us the ‘higher’ tribe.” He makes the point that our society has mistakenly conflated contradictory views that “everyone deserves an equal share” but also that “merit deserves more.” The problem is that nobody reasonably expects these two views to apply to every case, but Asma occasionally discusses them as if any kind of inconsistency in applying these principles made them logically contradictory. While it remains a good observation about our inconsistent conceptions of fairness, real life constantly requires ethical compromise, and we have to practice equality and fairness in some cases, merit and favoritism in others.

The most nuanced section of Against Fairness, and the one that resonates most with your author is Asma’s discussion of the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997). Berlin noticed in Machiavelli and Nietzsche that our civilization often simultaneously holds competing ethical systems—in the case of the aforementioned writers, that we value both power and control as human beings but also meekness, forgiveness, and submission as a Christian society. Berlin “lost faith in the idealism of ‘values harmony’… and Enlightenment optimism and embraced the irreconcilability of some deep values.” Even our systems of ethics, which we want to be as clear cut as possible, have many stakeholders who cannot always get along. Berlin “argued that every culture possesses its own ‘center of gravity’—a deep value system—and we should not look to pave over these differences with imperialistic notions of universal good.” Asma accepts Berlin’s conclusion—really a challenge—that we will forever have to wrestle with “value pluralism” in the face of competing valid notions of what is right. However, this position doesn’t necessarily lead to relativism, the view that all values are equally true. Asma goes further when he uses Berlin’s concept of “value pluralism” to show that even though our society holds two competing views—here, fairness and favoritism—one can still be better than the other. Though fairness certainly has its place in our lives, Asma defends only favoritism as the proper ethical standard.

Asma’s argument invokes a major issue in moral philosophy that deserves more attention: Hume’s guillotine. Philosopher David Hume wrote in A Treatise on Human Nature (1739) that we cannot derive an ought statement (i.e. a moral one) from an is statement (i.e. a scientific observation), and thus “beheaded” ethics by separating morality from experience. This is precisely the issue at stake in Asma’s work. When neuroscience begins to explain human behavior better than philosophy, as is the case on many issues today, the “is” camp seems to be taking over. Asma’s book is a reminder that that this change isn’t signaling the end of morality. It only calls for a new reality in which philosophers have the burden of accepting the favoritism inherent in human nature or accepting universal ethical failure. Given these options, favoritism might not be as bad as you once thought.

Against Fairness by Stephen T. Asma was published by the University of Chicago Press in October 2012 and is available for purchase on

This piece was originally published in On Air: “Issue 001.”


[1] Stephen T. Asma. Against Fairness. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2012.
[2] Martin Cohen, “Against Fairness,” The Times Higher Education.
[3] Harvard Study of Adult Development in “What Makes Us Happy?” by Joshua Wolf-Shenk in The Atlantic
[4] Stephen T. Asma, “In Defense of Favoritism,” The Chronicle Review.
[5] Martha C. Nussbaum. From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Jon Catlin

Jon Catlin

Jon Catlin is a second-year at the University of Chicago studying great books and the humanities. His ongoing scholarly project consists of mapping the impact of historical catastrophes on philosophical, religious, and literary traditions, with particular attention to the Holocaust. In-between issues of The Atlantic and The New Republic, Jon spends his time exploring libraries, teaching young people philosophy, and biking across Chicago.


  • Garret Tufte

    First off, the title of the book demands that there be a weighted response. One cannot deny that favoritsm has its place in our personal lives, for our individual health and happiness. I wish the author would stress that frame more. I saw a single line (of the author’s words) and one paragraph of the reviewer that addresses this fact. Favoritism cannot, I repeat, cannot be the ethical standard of the 21st century, or of any century. For the author to call his book such is disingenuous and wrong. He ought to add another subtitle to that: “A Self-Help Book”.

    The fact is that fairness should exist. It ought to exist in the macro sense. In the realms of law and collective human action where it is desperately needed. This cannot be a generalized philosophy, no matter his or anyone else’s attempt at that. A sensational title does sell books though; the more iconoclastic, the better. And he will make a lot of people who live by this doctrine quite satisfied. To the detriment of everyone else.
    But personally? I’ve no interest in reading.